About Oliver Frey
Born in Zurich in 1948, Oliver Frey grew up fluent in Italian — his parents hailed from Ticino, the Italian-speaking canton of Switzerland — as well as German.
His artistic career started in 1956, when he was almost eight, and the Frey family (he has a younger sister, Lauretta, and brother, Franco) went to live in Britain. On the flight a steward handed the puzzled Oliver a Dan Dare badge. He had never heard of the Pilot of the Future but discovered tucked under the cushions of a sofa in the hotel the family stayed in for a week copies of Eagle comic, and the badge and the Dan Dare strip matched up.
When he started school in Wembley, young Oliver discovered that his classmates were comic-mad, especially for Eagle.
There had been no such comics in Switzerland, and he was immediately taken by the quality of the artwork, immersing himself in the deeds of Dan Dare and the dastardly Mekon. He began copying the drawings of Eagle’s artists, and their styles became seminal influences. The sensation of bodies in movement, often in violent action, captured his imagination—a quality that has never left his work.
Did he inherit his talent for drawing? ‘I wouldn’t say my family was particularly artistic,’ he recalls, ‘although my great-grandfather had been a painter of landscapes and portraits who’d made his way in the USA. I only ever saw a couple of his paintings. My family encouraged me to keep drawing, though.’
After a few years, the Frey family returned to Switzerland. An English friend mailed Oliver copies of Eagle, however, and a weekly dose of comic inspiration arrived in the post.
Oliver most admired the work of Eagle artists Hampson (Dan Dare’s creator), Humphries and most particularly Bellamy. ‘Frank Bellamy’s line and colour work was so dramatic and action-packed. He was one of Britain’s best comic-strip artists.’
Oliver sent several drawings to his favourite comics, especially Eagle, but while encouraging, the responses were all in the negative. He was, however, once rewarded with a reply from Look & Learn’s Don Lawrence, the man from whom he would one day take over the Trigan Empire strip.
Still at school, Oliver’s attention was drawn to an advert for an American correspondence course, operating in Europe from Amsterdam, called The Famous Artists. The course comprised 36 lessons, written by a team of professional illustrators and contained in three huge volumes. He has praised the quality of The Famous Artists ever since. Sadly, for today’s aspiring illustrator, it no longer exists in its original form (there is an online version in the US). From its invaluable lessons, the young illustrator learned composition, use of materials, drawing, shading, colouring and the structure and articulation of the human body.
Like all Swiss males aged 18–60, Oliver had to do his stint in the Swiss Army, in the Signals Division, stationed in the high Alps.
But in 1969 he returned to Britain and attend the London Film School to fulfil his early ambition of directing action films.
As a teenager, with his sister and brother, he had made two James Bond-style action-adventures in Super-8 starring himself as both villains and the Swiss super-spy Apple-Apple 7 James Tell, which in spite of budget and equipment were remarkably sophisticated.
Living in London wasn’t cheap so to support himself he sought work as a professional illustrator.
He approached Fleetway and met the editor of the War Picture Library comics, E.J. Bensberg. ‘A true hero of the back room,’ Oliver later recalled of the man who, more than anyone, put him on the path to his future career.
‘I persuaded Bensberg to let me illustrate a story to show him what I could do. I was given a script and told to go away and draw the first five pages. He liked the result and I was commissioned to do the whole book.
The comics were small-format, 64-page, 150-frame, black and white picture-strips based on fictitious tales from World War II. For two months, working in my Battersea bedsit during the evenings, between mouthfuls of Heinz West End Grill heated on the single gas ring, I pencilled and inked, and my first full-length story was accepted.’
So began an association with the War Picture Library which resulted in dozens of covers and illustrated stories before he stopped doing them in the mid-1970s. Thanks to Bensberg keeping him busy, Oliver earned the then astronomical sum of £4,000 a year.
At the London Film School he met Roger Kean, who later became his partner in life and business.
In 1973, Oliver gained permission for a UK residency and settled in Highgate, North London.
Unable in those days to pursue a career in films because of Union regulations, throughout the 1970s he established himself as a freelance illustrator working on strips for IPC Comics’ Look & Learn and its spin-off Speed & Power.
He also did covers for Souvenir Press novels, video inlay jackets, lollypop wrapper designs for Walls and illustrations for children’s book publishers, including Hamlyn, Usborne and Oxford University Press.
The Look & Learn connection led to his taking over the prestigious Trigan Empire comic-strip story from Don Lawrence when the great man abandoned IPC Comics for more lucrative European pastures.
By the second half of the 1970s, Oliver’s work was reaching a large audience—but one piece in particular reached a massive circulation when he was commissioned to create the opening for Superman, The Movie.
‘My rough for the cover was accepted on the spot and used as it was in the pre-title sequence, along with the finished version of the strip. It was thrilling to go to the Empire [Leicester Square] the day after the premiere in 1978 and see my work flash up on that vast, luminous screen. Just for about 15 seconds—and that was that.’
Through visiting Ludlow in Shropshire to see an actor friend appear in the annual festival play there, Oliver formed a lifelong attachment to the medieval town and eventually moved from London to Ludlow towards the end of 1982.
He was joined shortly after by his younger brother Franco, who had become involved with a German firm which wanted to import games software for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum home computer. Franco and Roger Kean joined forces with Oliver to launch a games magazine for the hugely popular 16K Spectrum and went into business in 1984 as Newsfield Publications.
Until 1991, Oliver worked non-stop for Newsfield’s stable of magazines; among many, CRASH (for the Spectrum), ZZAP!64 (Commodore 64) became the best-selling computer games magazines of the 1980s.
For Newsfield’s Fantasy, Horror and Science-Fiction magazine FEAR., Oliver created some of his most striking cover images.
He also got his own comic-strip—The Terminal Man.
‘Each of the first twelve issues of CRASH carried the four-page serial [it later reappeared in ZZAP!64].
It was written by 2000AD editor Kelvin Gosnell and featured the adventures of spacefaring Cross, a man so damaged in an explosion he had to be re-created as a computer-generated image.’
In the mid-1990s, the Frey-Kean-Frey team moved away from magazines and began packaging books for publishers like Virgin, Carlton and TOPPS-Merlin, which eventually led into becoming fully-fledged publishers under the name of Thalamus Publishing.
In one of their books—The Complete Chronicle of the Emperors of Rome—Oliver provided 380 portraits of men, women and children, all drawn from busts or coins of the people featured.
The way that Oliver Frey produces his artwork has changed over the years, from chunky acrylics to inks and airbrush, from brushes to Apple Mac.
There was a time when he asserted that he would never abandon traditional methods for computer-generated art, but the illustrations for the Emperors book were all finished on computer. The advent of Photoshop (Adobe gave a beta copy to Newsfield to test in 1990) began the change, and since then he has produced literally hundreds of illustrations on the Mac.
But at last Oliver has again taken to his inks, acrylics and brushes to begin painting in the ‘old-fashioned’ way, as may be seen in the recent spate of retrogaming books published by Fusion Retro.